On William Safire

Posted Sept. 30, 2009, at 5:15 p.m.

People who love and respect the English language have lost a favorite in the death of William Safire, a longtime pundit and wordsmith for The New York Times. Whether they agreed with his conservative views in his twice-weekly “essays,” they could still revel in the piquancy and humor of his writing style. And his weekly “On Language” column in the Sunday Times Magazine was a treasury of insights on the origin and usage, or overusage, of unusual words or phrases.

Much of the same could be said of another brilliant conservative writer and phrasemaker who died recently, Irving Kristol, the father of the neoconservative movement.

Mr. Safire started in public relations. In 1959 he was in Moscow promoting an American products exhibition when Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev were meeting there. He managed to steer the two men into the model house he was promoting for their “kitchen debate” over capitalism versus communism.

Later, he joined President Nixon’s speech writing team. He wrote many of Mr. Nixon’s speeches defending the Vietnam War and coined phrases for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, including “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Mr. Safire’s self-styled “libertarian conservatism” led him to support the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq. Still, he denounced the Bush administration’s U.S.A. Patriot Act as an offense against civil liberties.

He was at his best when kidding presidents and other high officials. In the Jimmy Carter presidency, he wrote about “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momism.”

In a column headlined “How to Read a Column,” he ridiculed personal exchanges between columnists as removing the reader from the reality of controversy. Instead, he said readers should “insist on columns taking on only the truly powerful, and then only kicking them when they’re up.”

Taking his own advice, he once called Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar” and often assailed Lee Kuan Yew, the dictatorial leader of Singapore’s independence, who is much admired by conservatives.

In his language column, he zeroed in on such mannerisms as supermarkets calling their employees “associates.” He said such usage “hints at managerial equality.” He quoted one of his corps of “Lexographic Irregulars” as charging that this vogue was “an effort to exploit blue-collar workers more than ever” by conferring “nominal prestige without health care and other benefits.”

At his annual Yom Kippur “breaking the fasts” dinner for friends, he told them, “I am not telling you to fast — but food tastes better when you’re hungry.”

Bill Safire was truly one of a kind, or, in Latin, sui generis. He might even have admitted being sui generis to a fault.

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